The Children & Nature Network’s annual conference in late May in St. Paul brought together 600 of the world’s leading thinkers to discuss the importance of connecting children to the outdoors and current success stories. Benefiting everything from physical health to mental well-being, exposing the current generation to the natural world has been shown not only to be fun but also necessary. (Research articles online at bit.ly/childnnature).
While hardy Minnesotans are famous for getting out and about come sleet, snow and subzero temperatures, summer is arguably the best time to take children into the outdoors. Unencumbered by busy school schedules, many families high-tail it out of their cities and towns to reconnect with Mother Nature.
One of the most popular ways to do that is camping. Whether that means car camping at a local state park or backpacking deep in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we are lucky to have a range of options to fit every level of ambition and interest in the North Land.
To help you get outfitted for your family camping trip this summer, consider this list of potential items to get the most out of venturing into the wild with nature’s youngest stewards. (Click here for the gear list.)
The tent is one of the first things you’re going to set up when you arrive at your campsite. Because wrestling with an old structure that takes an hour to pitch — all while you try to keep an eye on little ones — won’t generally start your trip off well, choose a newer variety that is hassle-free. Also take into account how many bodies will be slumbering. A parent-child backpacking trip to the Boundary Waters may call for a two-person lightweight tent, but a car camping excursion can involve a roomier arrangement. The Mountain Hardwear Optic 6 Tent is a great standard option that allows everyone to stretch their legs. It takes only a couple of minutes to set up.
Let’s be honest, for families introducing children to camping for the first time, comfort is key. A poor night’s sleep can be disastrous. There are a number of sleeping bags, including Kelty’s options, which include models built for ages 4-14. There are also double bags, like the Big Agnes Dream Island 15, which are great for couples or for a parent and an apprehensive young camper to snuggle up. While there are many different inflatable mattresses and camping pads to choose from, if you’re looking to save space in the tent, Kid-O-Bunk and Disc-O-Bed make bunk cots for children and adults that can be transformed into single-level cots or benches. For the youngest outdoors adventurers, something portable and easy to set up, like the Lotus Everywhere Crib, fits easily into a larger tent. What’s more, you can buy a bug net or sun shade for the crib for daytime use.
While getting kids geared up for a camping trip largely depends on the destination, planned activities and weather, it’s a good idea to have a few key pieces of outerwear. Sun protection clothing is a big one. Patagonia and Columbia have a nice range of options for kids, little and big. Sun hats, rain suits, hiking shoes, swimsuits, and sandals with a back strap that can be worn in water also are essential.
Most parents find that even the most techie children naturally show curiosity and enthusiasm for outdoors activities. Taking the kids off-site to catch frogs, skip rocks, and make games out of identifying birds and plants are some of the best ways to help them engage with their surroundings. If you’re toting an infant, be sure to bring along a durable infant carrier for these excursions, like the Deuter Kid Comfort 3 child carrier. Outfit older kids with small packs so they can carry things like binoculars or a water bottle. Back at the campsite, have a variety of activities available. Have yard games. Or pull out a Frisbee or slackline, or reading material for young bookworms.
Kid-specific outdoors chairs can help make the experience of hanging out at the campsite extra special. If you’re worried about storage space, Big Agnes makes a series of kids camping chairs that pack into a carrying case about the size of a water bottle. The Ciao! Baby Portable High Chair is a great option for babies (it’d be great in a park or backyard, too). For the more adventurous children, a hammock or the new Tree Pod hanging treehouse are perfect for watching the clouds float by. Be sure to check park rules about hanging any apparatus from trees; some state parks don’t permit it.
Your meal selection will vary depending on who you have in tow and how far into the wild you’ll be venturing, but it’s safe to say that copious amounts of snacks are a must-have for any crew that includes young outdoors people. Your camp kitchen should include a stove and/or grill, along with utensils, bottles, and dishware fit for every age. With children, it’s also fun to bring along accessories like the MalloMe marshmallow roasting sticks. If you’re car camping, it’s worth overestimating the size of the cooler you’ll need. YETI has some of the most durable on the market, including the bear-proof variety that can double as a bench around the fire.
While part of the point of camping is to unplug and escape from the hustle and bustle, a certain level of gadgetry can make camping more fun — and easier for adults. Headlamps, flashlights and lanterns are among kids’ favorite toys after the sun goes down. The Power Practical Luminoodle is part of a new class of creative lighting options that can easily transition from a lantern bag used to explore the woods to a string of lights for illuminating a tent. Glow necklaces and bracelets are also a good way to keep track of kids after dark. Brands like GoalZero offer a great selection, from lighting options to all-weather speakers, to portable solar chargers. Also, don’t forget a camera to document the whole adventure. Intova makes an affordable action camera that even works underwater, and a number of the traditional camera brands now make adventure-worthy point-and-shoot models that can withstand just about anything Mother Nature might throw at you.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.